Thursday, July 26, 2018


Good posture occurs when the muscles of the body support the skeleton in an alignment that is stable as well as efficient, both in stillness and in movement.

Bad posture is the result of a number of things including bad habits developed over time as the body seeks ways to accommodate muscle spasm, weakness, tension or imbalance between muscle groups. Causes of bad posture include but are not limited to injury and muscle guarding, muscle tension and muscle weakness, and the incorrect use of technology. Genetics and hereditary can also play a role. However, there is one cause of bad posture that, in my experience, tops the list—shallow breathing.

Most people have heard of the diaphragm. Sadly, most people hardly use their diaphragm when breathing. They are shallow breathers. They utilise only a small part of their lung capacity. So, what exactly is the diaphragm? Well, it is a great, strong dome of flattish muscle located in the lower rib cage, that is, at the base of the lungs or, more exactly, at the bottom of the chest between the lungs and the stomach. The diaphragm, which is shaped like a parachute, separates the chest cavity and the abdominal cavities. The floor of the chest cavity which contains the lungs and the heart is made up of the diaphragm. The abdominal cavities contain the digestive, reproductive and excretory organs.

The diaphragm works like a pump. It has the capacity to move upwards and downwardsand inwards and outwards—thereby changing the volume of both the chest cavity and its passive occupants (specifically, the lungs). When we breathe with our diaphragm, air is drawn into the lower lung spaces. The diaphragm and the intercostal muscles—the muscles between the ribs—should be used to take the in-breath to the middle and lower parts of the lungs. During inhalation, the diaphragm contracts and flattens. That causes our upper abdominal muscles to relax and extend slightly. Our abdomen thus moves forward, and the lower 'floating' ribs flare or expand slightly outward to the side. In addition, the diaphragm is the principal muscle used for exhaling. When we exhale, the diaphragm—in an upward movement—relaxes and returns to its ‘normal’ dome-shaped position. What happens here is the upper abdominal muscles contract, and air (in the form of carbon dioxide) is expelled - in fact, forced out - from the lungs.

How the diaphragm works.

Now, what happens when we fail to use, or hardly use, our diaphragm when breathing? Terrible things!
Most people are 'chest breathers'. Chest breathers are shallow breathers. They use only the top portion of their lungs. They don't fill up the bottom part. Chest breathing is a very 'shallow' and ordinarily haphazard and non-rhythmic form of breathing, with almost all the outward movement being confined to the upper chest. One of the results of chest breathing is that the lungs are never filled completely, so the body rarely, if ever, receives sufficient oxygen. That is not good. There is a lung condition known as atelectasis, which is the collapse or closure of a lung resulting in reduced or absent gas exchange. It may affect part or all of a lung. There are several causes of atelectasis, but one of them is—you guessed it—shallow chest breathing. What we don’t use, we lose. If we don’t use all of our lungs, we end up with part of our lung collapsing or closing. Not nice at all. When we breathe correctly—that is, breathing deeply using our diaphragm—we use the bottom of our lungs as well as the top.

Atelectasis of the right lower lobe seen on chest X-ray.
(Source: Hellerhoff. Wikipedia.)

outh breathers are invariably chest breathers, but chest breathers aren't confined to mouth breathers. When we breathe with our chest, the neck, shoulders and upper rib muscles are all 'engaged' as our chest 'elevates' toward our chin when breathing inwards. The result? Chronic neck and shoulder tension which, of course, lead to pain. Worse, over time there can be noticeable postural changes in the body such as a forward shift in the head and a rounding of the shoulders. When the head is pulled forward, the additional pressure on the neck, shoulders and back rises dramatically. The result? Well, there are several, but one of the nastiest is tissue damage ... and more 
painEvery 2.5 cm (inch) that the head is thrust forward from its natural position adds another 4.5 kg (10 lbs) of stress and pressure on the neck, shoulders, back and spine. More bad stuff. 

The answer to all this is not to throw back your shoulders. Silly but well-intentioned advice, that. No, the answer is to learn to breathe correctly—that is, deeply, using the diaphragm, drawing air into the lower lung spaces, and exhaling fully. When we do that properly, rhythmically and habitually, our posture will improve dramatically. The shoulders will go back where they should be, there will be less rounding of the shoulders, and the forward tilt of the head will be corrected as well. The result? Not only good posture but a much better state of fitness and overall health.

So, when we breath, we should fill our entire lungs with air. It helps immeasurably if you can breathe through the nose. (Sorry, mouth breathers.) Practise ensuring that your out-breath is longer than your in-breath. That will also assist with posture. It also relaxes both the body and the mind. In addition, the regular up-and-down movement of the diaphragm massages the abdominal organs.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to learn to breathe correctly. It is never too late to start.


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